My Free Time is More Awesome Than Your Free Time

The section of my dissertation I’m working on these days is entitled “The Good Job.” This has involved re-reading a favourite: Barbara Ehrenreicht’s “Nickeled and Dimed: On (Not) Making it in America” It’s a wry, witty, gritty auto-ethnography, pulled together over Barbara’s – I really feel like I want to just call her Barbara – several month experiment of trying to make a living on minimum wage.[1]

She makes her case: the working poor are really damn poor. Unless they are doubled up with partners, family members, or strangers, they’re sleeping in cars or living in tiny single room apartments. Working as a waitress, then as a maid for a franchised cleaning company, and finally a Walmart clerk, Ehrenreicht quickly realizes that living in a trailer park is actually something to be aspired to if you work for minimum wage. But this isn’t what really gets to her, I think. It’s the indignity of the whole business. Because poverty is accompanied by its own special brand of invisibility. She recounts her own feelings of isolation when others avoid eye contact, don’t speak to her, or address her only as “honey” or “baby.”

This invisibility extends to the hiring process when you’re looking for a low-wage, low-skill job. You are not special. You are not interesting. You are, as Ehrenreicht discovers, painfully generic: a warm body that shows up in the right place at the right time is, by virtue of this happy accident and little else, employable.

Ehrenreicht’s account of the job search as a member of the class of the “working poor” stands in sharp contrast to much of the rhetoric that surrounds the work search when you’ve got some education under your belt. For as no shortage of freshly minted grads will tell you, being in the right place at the right time isn’t going to cut it. You need a gimmick.

Standing Out in a Crowd

If you’ve followed my earlier blogs here, you might recall that credentialism is a kind of “gate-keeping” that makes it increasingly difficult to get a job without a formal degree, diploma or certification. But what happens to the hiring process when candidates are all presenting with education up to their eyeballs? As Lauren Rivera (2011) describes in a study of corporate recruitments of new Ivy League grads, reviewers begin to look for criteria outside of educational achievements  to decide which candidates are outstanding.

And here’s where things get interesting, because they move on to judge the value and quality of extra-curricular pursuits. House leagues? No. Collecting for your local food bank drive? Ummmm…. no. Not cool enough. You want globe-trotting, highfalutin stuff that demonstrates your leadership, your ability to juggle an insane schedule, and generally, the upper limits of your capacity for over achievement. A job search coach, for example, advises that “you don’t want to just put something to say you’ve done volunteer work….Anything that was a one-time thing, or twice a year, it may not be significant. Instead, the advisor recommends that resumes highlight volunteer activities that involve commitment, responsibility, and skill development.[2]

Rivera argues that leisure and volunteer activities now function as a form of credentialism – a conclusion also drawn by the authors of a similar study of high-end corporate hiring. [3] These studies of elite recruitment may point to the origins of the dance between hyoer-achieving young adults and companies they seek to work for. Tactics used in the most competitive fields to claw one’s way to the top of the resume pile trickle down to become the norm for job seekers in the main.

The importance of packaging up your whole being into an employable “brand” is arguably creepy – a commodification of the “self.”[4] But if all parties are consenting adults – you know, over 21 kind of thing – what’s the problem? Critics get a little queasy for a couple of reasons. First, is there, or should there be some sanctity to volunteer work and leisure? We do stuff we don’t get paid for because it’s fun. Or because we think it serves a greater good. But if one starts thinking in terms of whether such activities “look good on a resume,” do they become pursuits with no soul?[5] One could argue, I suppose, that there is a middle way – that you can find things to do with your free time that you love to do and that look good on a resume. But if you’re raised to perform instead of just be, do you ever learn to know what makes you tick when you’re not on the “employability” stage?

Free Time, Work and Working Poor

Oddly – and returning to Ehrenreicht’s account of the wounds of invisibility – leisure and volunteer pursuits as a form of credentialism is a problem of the privileged. I’m not saying it’s not a problem; I mean it’s a weird, “classed” problem. Middle class folks experience chronic time pressure because even their “free” time will be judged in relation to their value as paid workers. The working poor, as Ehrenreicht demonstrates, are time impoverished in a different way: if you’re working just to meet your basic needs, how to spend your unpaid time isn’t a problem simply because you don’t have much unpaid time. And the chronically unemployed underclass – that’s another matter again. Because they are considered unemployable, their time is worth nothing at all. [6]


[1] In research, ethnography is where the researcher, as the popular stereo-types go, “lives among the natives,” and gathers rich, in-depth accounts of societies and their cultures through a combination of observation and ongoing, informal discussions and encounters with the study subjects. Or at least this is how it goes in the sort of colonial tradition of representing “other” (i.e. non-Western, non-white) societies as exotic and strange. Contemporary ethnographies use the same strategies of close observation and participation in the “culture” under study, but in all sorts of settings: neighbourhoods, businesses, and schools, for example. An “auto-ethnography” (auto means “self” here, just like an autobiography) shifts the focus from the study subjects the researcher, so the study is written up in the first person. This highlights the way the researcher has experienced the research setting, and changed as a result of his or her experiences. Ehrenreicht’s account in Nickeled and Dimed has elements of both ethnography and auto-ethnography.

[2]See Reynolds-Lewis (2011, October 20th). Should you include volunteer work on a resume? CNN Money. The article cautions readers against including volunteer work in “touchy” areas like religion and politics, and the potential “stigma” of some forms of volunteer work – for example the PTA gig that “screams suburban mom.”

[3] Brown, Hesketh & Williams **** Rivera, L. a. (2011). Ivies, extracurriculars, and exclusion: Elite employers’ use of educational credentials. Research in Social Stratification and Mobility, 29(1), 71–90. Rivera concludes that “extracurricular activities now serve as a new credential of candidates’ social and moral character.” (p.72) Also see Brown, P., Hesketh, A., & Williams, S. (2004). The mismanagement of talent: Employability and jobs in the knowledge economy. New York: Oxford University Press. These authors conclude that heightened “gatekeeping” is the result of far too many very qualified graduates chasing far too few good jobs.

[4] The problem of turning yourself into a product that you “sell” has been subject to many critiques. The one I focus on here is the dehumanizing element of having to persuade employers not only of your worth as a worker, but as a human being. Thus the whole of “being human” is swallowed up by “being a worker.” Kind of make sense?

Another important critique is that the idea that you make yourself “employable,” so if you fail it isn’t because there are no good jobs, it’s because you haven’t worked hard enough, educated yourself enough, don’t have the right skills. Etcetera. And etcetera. Here’s a good account of the concept of employability:  McQuaid, R. W., & Lindsay, C. (2005). The concept of employability. Urban Studies, 42(2), 197–219. doi:10.1080/0042098042000316100

[5] A second, related  problem is whether such a mindset creates a status hierarchy of do-gooder stuff. In a blog a couple of years ago, I considered how different types of volunteer work can be perceived to have more or less status, with the unfortunate effect of keeping many people too much at arms’ length from the types of day-to-day encounters that put a more human face on poverty and suffering.

[6] In all Ehrenreicht’s work experiences she was compelled to seek a second job because one full-time job was not enough to meet her basic needs. Affordable housing was a constant and at times dire concern. The “underclass” and the worthlessness of their time is discussed by sociologist Zig Bauman. In Work, Consumer and the New Poor (2005) he recounts how the unemployed and unemployable were produced by the globalization of cheap labour, and how these “underclasses” have been subsequently pathologized as criminals, deviants, or “opt outs.”

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